Language-Arts Standards Spur Mixed Reviews

By Karen Diegmueller — November 29, 1995 5 min read

San Diego

Don’t expect the national standards being written for English-language arts to look anything like the other subject-matter standards that have come before them. And don’t expect them to spell out what students should know and be able to do.

But given the talk here among language-arts professionals, it’s safe to expect that the voluntary standards will not be accepted quietly.

At one time, the National Council of Teachers of English had intended to unveil the long-anticipated document here last week at its annual conference. But the NCTE and its partner in the standards venture, the International Reading Association, instead used the occasion to solicit more feedback on a project already three years in the making.

What they got were opinions ranging from wholehearted approval to downright dismay. One teacher may have summed up the range of responses in his observation that there was beauty in one standard and ambiguity in another.

Looking outside the profession, though, one educator from Nebraska said the draft standards were likely to leave parents, policymakers, and the public with the impression that English-language-arts educators are “unable to say what they mean.”

Nonetheless, officials from the English teachers’ group and the reading association said they believe that the final version can be ready for the public by March, but they are willing to wait. “I would rather take a couple of extra weeks and get it right,” Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the IRA, said.

No Quotes, Please

English-language arts, the bedrock of precollegiate education, is among the last of the subject-matter groups still to be working on national standards. The science standards are due out next month, and the economics standards are due out late next spring.

The standards project’s belated status stems in part from running afoul of the U.S. Department of Education. Midway through the journey, the department, citing lack of specificity among other concerns, pulled the project’s funding.

But the IRA and the NCTE forged ahead, committing $1 million of their own money to complete the task.

Along the way, numerous drafts have been produced. In recent weeks, the executive boards of both organizations sent a version completed last month back to the drawing boards for revisions, although officials from both groups said that internal responses, as well as those from the field, were generally favorable.

Mr. Farstrup said more attention needs to be given to developmental reading and to literature as a discipline. Moreover, he said, reviewers suggested that the document frankly discuss the controversies that have raged within language arts, including the development of skills in conventional forms of English.

Now, Mr. Farstrup said, the goal is to revise the standards so that they reflect the most-current thinking about the discipline, yet to do so in a way that is uncomplicated but not simplistic.

A second document, which was prepared earlier this month in response to the critiques, was being passed around the meeting here. But organization officials said the final product would more likely resemble last month’s version than the most-recent document.

Unlike the other standards-setting groups, English-language-arts officials will not allow any part of their draft documents to be published.

“It is not fair to quote from a document that has not been approved,” said Miriam T. Chaplin, an education professor at Rutgers University who completed her term as NCTE president last week.

Revising the Language

With the possible exception of the health standards, the others that have been released to date set out clear guidelines showing the content that students in grades 4, 8, and 12 should be expected to master. Neither of the English-language-arts papers circulating here do that. There is no canon; there are no benchmarks.

“There was a conscious decision that we didn’t want our document to be prescriptive,” Ms. Chaplin said.

The October version lists 11 standards that speak in broad terms of student-learning processes. One deals with literature, and one with writing. One addresses basic skills; several deal with diversity issues.

The more recent set is not as focused. In place of what students should learn, that version emphasizes why students should learn something and how well. It also would elevate media viewing and visual representation to the same status as the more traditional language arts of reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

“What it leaves out is the what,” said John S. Mayher, an author of the latest draft. “What it leaves out is the specificity. It doesn’t tell you to teach Hamlet. It doesn’t even tell you to teach grammar,” Mr. Mayher, a professor of English education at New York University, said.

Educators at the conference tended to favor the October draft.

“They’ve done a good job up to this point, but it needs to be fine-tuned,” said Maureen McSherry, a high school English department head from Dalton, Ill.

A number of conferees, however, said they were gravely concerned about the most-recent draft.

“The words need to be what we on the East Coast call 7-11 language,” a teacher from Rhode Island said, referring to the convenience-store chain. “The language has to be clear even for English teachers,” he said. “These are the kinds of things we have to explain to others. Why give us one more lesson to teach?”

Range of Reaction

From a state department point of view, one official from the Midwest, who asked that he not be identified, said: “This would not fly. I can’t take these to my public. I wouldn’t know how to answer their questions.”

But a teacher from Ohio said she saw no problem with the latest version. And another teacher called the list of 11 standards in the earlier version meaningless. Unlike the November draft, she said, “It doesn’t inspire me.”

Some of the participants also warned of “red flags.” They cited standards in the October version that address diversity, students who are not native English speakers, and the use of language to interpret text and investigate issues.

Several of the standards “contain language that is offensive [to large portions of the public], and they are going to reject it right out of hand,” cautioned Marcia R. Story, a high school teacher in Las Vegas.

To Holly Stein, though, the issue boiled down to interpretation. “I could interpret them to mean I’m doing all of them,” said the high school teacher from Washington state. “They need a little more specificity for me.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1995 edition of Education Week as Language-Arts Standards Spur Mixed Reviews